Dr. Cristie Columbus, M.D., is an infectious disease specialist and the assistant medical director for epidemiology and infection control and prevention for Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and Baylor Scott & White Health — North Texas division. She joined other experts on Think on KERA-FM (90.1) for a discussion on Ebola. Listen to the show here.
The worst Ebola outbreak in history is leading to concerns that the deadly disease could soon spread from West Africa to the United States.
But infectious disease experts and public health officials note that the risk of that happening is low. Even if it did spread to our country, some say, we have far better capability than other parts of the world to combat the disease effectively.
“There are ways to control that in a 21st-century hospital,” said Dr. Cedric Spak, M.D., an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. “But you can imagine that if you’re just laying in a bed in poor conditions, you don’t really have a chance.”
That’s part of the reason why Fort Worth Dr. Kent Brantly, who was diagnosed with Ebola in Liberia, was flown to Atlanta on Saturday. He was then taken by ambulance to Emory University, where he’s being treated in a special containment unit. Brantly is thought to be the first person treated for Ebola at a United States hospital.
Dr. Spak said he was already getting calls last week from people concerned about the disease. He and others in his field urge calm. The disease is not in North Texas and there are important questions about Ebola that have yet to be answered.
“We don’t know how many people in Africa had it and survived,” Dr. Spak said. “We don’t know how many people are asymptomatic.”
He acknowledged that it is that uncertainty that makes people nervous.
“There’s this emotional component that’s oftentimes very irrational,” he said.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. Dr. Steven Davis, M.D., the medical director of infection control at Baylor Medical Center at Irving, said some of the transmissions in West Africa appear to have occurred during ceremonial practices involving the handling of dead bodies.
In the unlikely event that a case is recognized in a traveler, Dr. Davis said strict protocols would be followed by hospitals and health care workers to limit interaction with infected or exposed persons and prevent a large-scale outbreak.
“We have a whole group of safety people that manage those sorts of catastrophic events,” Dr. Davis said.
Still, he said the potential spread of the disease “needs to be on the minds of public health persons, especially at entry points.”
The New York Times offers further key perspective, noting that, unlike HIV, Ebola does not continue to be transmitted over a long period of time because most people who are infected die quickly.
“Since it was first identified nearly 40 years ago, Ebola has infected fewer than 5,000 and killed fewer than 3,000 in Africa, home to 1.1 billion people,” the Times reported. “By contrast, more than 35 million people worldwide are infected with H.I.V., and close to 39 million have died of its complications.”